Sotheby’s started of with small beginnings. The founder of Sotheby’s, Samuel Baker, a London bookseller established Sotheby’s in 11 March 1744 in London and held the first auction, the sale of hundreds of scarce and valuable books from the library of Sir John Stanley, 1st Baronet (1663 – 30 November 1744) of Grangegorman, Co. Dublin an Irish politician.
Christies’ the major rival of Sotheby’s was started around the same time. (A write up of Christies will follow shortly)
The current business started however in1804 with two of the original partners set up their own bookshop and began to auction book lots. These included the famous library of Napoleon which he took into exile. Also other great libraries went under the hammer including John Wilke4s, Benjamin Heywood Bright and various Others including the Dukes of Devonshire and Buckinghamshire.
Baker died 1778 and the estate was split between Leigh and John Sotheby. The auction house began to expand its operations extending to auctioning coins, prints, medals and so forth as well as the successful valuable book libraries.
However fine arts were not included in the catalogues until as late as the early 1900s when a Frans Hal painting was sold in 1913 for the princely sum of 9,000 guineas. (A guinea was one pound and one shilling).
Sotheby’s was started at 13 Wellington Street in London but in 1917 moved to its present location, 34-35 New Bond Street and the great rivalry for art auctions with Christie’s began.
The new York office in New York City was opened in 1955 and they expanded their operation there by buying up Parke-Bernet, the largest fine art auction house in the US in 1964. They then moved to Madison Avenue and have since opened offices in Paris, Los Angeles, Hong Kong and Moscow.
Sotheby’s has participated in some famous auctions of fine art and treasures including the original manuscript of Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, given by Lewis Carroll to Alice Liddell (the real Alice in Wonderland), sold in London for a record £15,400.
Paintings and other items collected by Baron Lionel Nathan de Rothschild on site at 148 Piccadilly, one of the Rothschild’s family residences, raised an unheard of £125,262, and was broadcast live by the BBC at the time.
Rembrandt’s Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer sold to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, with Louis Marion as auctioneer, for a record $2.3 million, an auction record for a painting at the time.
In 1968 Sotheby’s was the first auction house to break the $1 million barrier for jewellery, selling A 69.42 carat ring to Cartier for $1.1 million in New York. The ring was then purchased by Richard Burton and is now famously known as the Taylor-Burton Diamond.
Other famous pieces include Pierre-August Renoir’s The Pont des Arts, Paris sold for $1.55 million, the first Impressionist work to achieve more than $1 million at auction.
One of the most remarkable sales was in 2000 when Sotheby’s launched Sothebys.com and became the first international house to hold online auctions. In its landmark inaugural sale, the same first printing of the Declaration of Independence discovered hidden in the back of a painting purchased for $4 at a flea market and sold for $2.4 million in 1991 sold again for $8.1 million to Norman Lear.
Of more interest to us perhaps, in 1995 a 100.10 Carat D-Color, Internally Flawless Diamond, The Star of the Season, sold for CHF18.7 million in Geneva, setting a record for any piece of jewellery at auction and for a single precious stone.
And so the list goes on.
A more complete list can be found on the Sotheby’s website.
In 1977 Sotheby’s became a United Kingdom based public company, and within 18 months the value of a share more than doubled. Currently (at the time of writing) it sits at around $42 US or 26 Pounds. It’s shares are also listed on the New York Stock Exchange with the ticker symbol BID.
Interestingly, Sotheby’s is currently the oldest company listed on the New York Stock Exchange.
Sotheby’s is now 270 years old, one of the oldest auction houses in existence and a tradition and landmark in action houses. Let us hope it will continue to regale us with the fascinating sales of the world’s treasures, jewelry and fine art for the next 270 years.